Travel

N.C.'s portal to other worlds

There's something just up the road from Charlotte that will take you light years away.

The Cline Observatory on the campus of Guilford Technical Community College (GTCC) in Jamestown is small on the outside, but there's an amazing amount of space – as in outer space – on the inside.

Skies permitting, the Observatory is open every Friday evening year round for free viewings of celestial bodies from every corner of the universe.

Distance

From Charlotte, Jamestown is approximately 80 miles. Plan on a 90-minute drive, one way.

Getting there

Take Interstate 85 North to Exit 118 (U.S. 29/70). Turn left toward Jamestown. Exit onto Guilford College Road and turn right. Turn left on Vickery Chapel Road North and drive 1.3 miles. Turn right on High Point Road; drive 0.3 miles, and turn left on Rochelle Road. Turn right on Montgomery. The observatory is visible on the right, overlooking a pond.

To see and do

J. Donald Cline contributed money to GTCC in the 1990s to build an observatory where students and the public could see and learn about the universe.

The observatory, which opened in 1997, was named in his honor. The telescope is housed in a circular, domed building. A slit in the roof opens during viewings, and the dome can be rotated so that objects in every direction of the sky can be seen.

The telescope itself looks rather small, only about 40 inches long. (In comparison, the famous Hubble telescope that has been orbiting Earth since 1990 is the length of a bus.)

Repositioning the telescope – a process called “slewing” – is done by using a control pad that looks similar to the joy sticks used for video games. A computer screen displays a map of the current positions of planets, stars and other heavenly bodies, so the telescope can quickly hone in on specific objects.

The “stars” of the weekly viewings aren't usually the stars at all, but rather Earth's sister planets and our very own moon. Since Earth's orbiting satellite is (in celestial terms at least) a mere stone's throw away, the Cline telescope is able to bring details of the lunar surface into sharp focus. Even senior citizens gasp like children when they gaze through the lens at the stark, ashen surface of the moon.

Visitors to the observatory might get to see Venus, Mars, Saturn or Jupiter, or perhaps a comet or meteor shower. When not viewing something within our own solar system, the telescope hones in on individual stars or globular clusters of stars from galaxies unimaginable distances away.

During Daylight Savings Time, programs start one-half hour after dusk. At other times, programs start at 7 p.m. The informal sessions last about two hours, depending upon the number of visitors, interest, and, of course, weather conditions.

Arrive early enough can take advantage of the “Sidewalk Solar System.”

Each planet has a marker along a path outside the observatory that provides basic information about it. The markers are positioned in relative distance from the observatory to give you an idea of how they're actually spaced from the sun.

Markers for Mercury, Venus, and Earth are just outside the door. Saturn's marker, by contrast, is about the length of a football field away. From Neptune's marker, the domed roof of the observatory is all that can be seen.

Pluto, recently stripped of its designation as a planet, is out of sight of the observatory altogether. Poor Pluto! Gary McCullough

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